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Posted on April 14, 2015 at 7:04 AM

Last week we posted an article to our Facebook page from the
Washington Post entitled “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM
majors with liberal arts training

Reading this got me to thinking and a bit of reminiscing
about my own education. Long before STEM meant science technology engineering
and math I was a STEM major. I received my undergraduate degree from the University
of Illinois in 1972 from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. That is, I
was a STEM major who received a liberal arts education. The replacement of the
word “education” for “training” is intentional on my part as I value education
far beyond training but I digress.  I
focused on science to the greatest degree possible with a biology major and a
chemistry/physics minor. But as a student in the College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences I was required to complete requirements which were satisfied by
sequences in social sciences, humanities, foreign language, and rhetoric. I
remember these experiences to varying degrees. Some are fond memories, some
seemed more like torture. Collectively, however, I look back on these courses
as a great well rounded and very rewarding educational experience. I do have
every confidence that I benefited greatly from my non-STEM courses and they
helped me with the skills and the experience to better communicate as a
scientist and the non-scientific responsibilities I also had as a faculty

I remember as well that these courses were very contextual
of the time I was in school. These times were rife with protest and civil
disobedience. The time I was in school was the peak of the anti-war movement,
pivotal in the fights for LGBT and women’s rights and the ongoing civil rights
movement. There was always a protest going on somewhere about something and for
very good reason. Rhetoric which largely consisted of reading and writing seemed
to focus on literature from these movements. This was also the peak of the
anti-science component of postmodernism. I well remember being rebuked by my
humanities professor for using scientific thinking in completing an assignment.
She was a very popular professor much in demand. In retrospect she was also a
bit of a close-minded jerk. But I read a lot of stuff I would not have read had
I not been in that class and I was better off for having done so.

So I do agree that scientists need to be educated in the
liberal arts. They probably do help me communicate science to non-scientists
and that is good. But I really do not think there is much substance to the
suggestion that scientists are not good communicators. Communication, both
written and verbal is part of every scientist’s everyday job. Communication is
integral to every aspect of education and to proposing, conducting and
communicating science.  My liberal arts
background is also an asset in my current job, directing graduate programs in
bioethics. But there is another side to this premise. One of the reasons that
it is difficult to communicate scientific concepts to non-scientists is because
of the meager scientific education they receive. Liberal arts majors have very
light (inadequate?) science requirements. They often satisfy these with special
dumb-downed “science for liberal arts majors” type courses which fail to
educate. While I may have conflicted with my humanities professor it was
reassuring to know that I was taking the same courses that humanities majors
took. There were no special dumbed-down “humanities for science majors”
courses. Scientific literacy is dreadfully lacking in this country. Is it
unrealistic to think that all college graduates should have some degree of
science literacy? I do not think so.

In the end I would suggest that it would be beneficial for
both science majors and liberal arts majors to learn more of each other’s
areas. We need to abandon the unfounded suggestions that scientists are less
effective communicators.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

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